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Thursday, January 7, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Coming Home -- New Play Explores Life For Japanese Americans After Internment

Seattle Times Theater Critic

Thanks to a slew of informative books, plays, films, and a federal apology signed into law by President Reagan, it is common knowledge that most of this country's Japanese-American citizens, including thousands of Seattle residents, were incarcerated by their own government in internment camps during World War II.

Not understood as widely, however, is what happened to these men, women and children right after the war, when they were released from remote camps and had to rebuild profoundly disrupted lives.

That fraught and uncertain homecoming is the subject of "The Sisters Matsumoto," a new drama by noted Japanese-American playwright Philip Kan Gotanda, which debuts Monday at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

The clan Gotanda depicts in this world premiere work returns home to its once-prosperous, now-dilapidated family farm in the San Joaquin Valley. But the story also is likely to strike chords in the roughly 14,000 Washington residents who also experienced wartime dislocations, along with post-war loss, fear, resignation and anger.

Seattle Rep artistic head Sharon Ott (who is the director of "The Sisters Matsumoto," which travels later to California's San Jose Repertory Theatre) wants to highlight the local connections to the play.

Working with Wing Luke Asian Museum, the Rep has installed a mini-version of an important 1992 documentary exhibit, "Executive Order 9066: 50 Years Before and 50 Years After," in its rotunda lobby.

Also scheduled in conjunction with the play is a book signing Jan. 18 by David A. Takami of his new volume, "Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle." Published by the University of Washington with Wing Luke Asian Museum, the profusely illustrated book is an expanded version of the "Executive Order 9066" exhibit catalog.

That 1992 display, organized by 100 volunteers from four generations, documented 50 years of local Japanese-American life with photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, oral histories, and personal artifacts.

"It was a profoundly healing experience for many people who had lived through those times, as well as their children and grandchildren," says head researcher Sally Yamasaki.

Patrons view exhibit

Though the Rep's lobby isn't large enough to contain the entire exhibit, Wing Luke executive director Ron Chew is glad some core historical materials are on view for "Sisters Matsumoto" patrons.

"The play focuses on some of the same central issues the exhibit did, so it was a natural tie-in," says Chew. "People seeing the play, especially those who aren't Japanese American, will probably have questions about the historical context. The exhibit just adds more texture and different ways of looking at some of these events and episodes."

In the background of Gotanda's play is the federal decree alluded to in the exhibit's title: Executive Order 9066, signed into law in 1942 by Pres. Franklin Roosevelt. While not directly mentioning Japanese Americans, the order authorized evacuation of "any or all persons" from "designated military zones."

With shocking swiftness, 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry (the vast majority from Western states) were packed off to remote encampments for the next three years.

But Gotanda underscores that his script is not set within the camps ("that's been covered well by other writers"), and liberally mixes history with fiction, fantasy with true stories from his own family.

Some real-life parallels are striking, however. Like the three female siblings in "Sisters Matsumoto," Gotanda hails from Stockton, Calif., as does his mother - "a Matsumoto," confirms the San Francisco-based writer. "She did have two sisters, and grew up on a successful ranch."

It's no accident either that one of the play's Matsumoto girls is married to a feisty physician from Hawaii. Gotanda's late father was also a doctor, a native of Kaui.

And in the play, the sisters confront post-war economic hardship by creating an impromptu cooperative business - much like the one Gotanda's relations started up.

But Gotanda, who also has drawn on family memories for such earlier plays as "Songs for a Nisei Fisherman" and the recent "Ballad of Yachiyo," says his script had purely literary inspirations also: Anton Chekhov's plays "The Three Sisters" and "The Cherry Orchard," and the classic Japanese novel (and 1985 film), "The Makioki Sisters."

Reaching beyond his own family circle, one of his goals was to depict the hidden class tensions in Japanese-American society.

"I'm interested in how these three women, who were once prosperous but lost almost everything, redefine and reinvent themselves.

"These were people who had belonged to a white country club. Suddenly there they are, back home but in a completely different world."

The play also considers how the adult sisters as Nisei (children of Japanese natives) both discard and honor the heritage of their deceased Issei (immigrant) parents.

Unmarried Rose (played by Michi Barall) rejects the suitors offered by a traditional marriage broker. But her older sibling Grace (Kim Miyori) is trapped in a chilly arranged union with Hideo (Nelson Mashita), a man paid to carry on the Matsumoto line by forsaking his own last name and adopting his wife's.

Reflects director Ott, a longtime collaborator of Gotanda, "I think it's very interesting how Philip is showing the ways these women hang on to some Japanese traditions, and yet are completely Americanized."

Like Washington returnees

Along with economic problems, the fictional Matsumotos face blunt racial prejudice, touchy relations with their white neighbors, and confusion about what to do next.

In that sense they were much like Western Washington's Japanese-American returnees, says Sally Yamasaki, whose father was released (along with most Seattle internees) from the Minidoka camp in Idaho.

"A lot of people had trouble when they got back here," she explains. "There was racist graffiti, hostility, uncertainty, a bad housing shortage. People's leases were broken, their businesses ruined."

Though today's local Japanese-American community is again prosperous, Yamasaki claims it has "never built up again to where it was before the war.

"Back then, something like 70 percent of the vendors in Pike Place Market were Japanese Americans. Japanese farmers supplied most of the vegetables for the city, a lot of the milk. The Nihonmachi (Japantown) was big and thriving, with lots of hotels, restaurants and other businesses."

Sadly, notes Yamasaki, some Japanese Americans were afraid to return to Seattle to pick up the pieces. "They went east, or to the Midwest. After everything that had happened, they just felt that moving to places where there were fewer of them would be safer."

---------- Play dates ----------

"The Sisters Matsumoto" previews tonight through Sunday, and opens on Monday at 7:30 p.m., at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center. It plays Tuesday-Sunday through Feb. 13. $10-39. 206-443-2222. On Monday, Jan. 18, the Rep will present a book-signing with author David Takami for "Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle," and a related one-woman show "Within the Silence," by Living Voices.

------------------------ Gotanda's other projects ------------------------

This is a busy month for author Philip Kan Gotanda. In addition to the world debut of "The Sisters Matsumoto," Gotanda has another new play opening on Wednesday at the East West Players in Los Angeles: "Yohen," starring screen actor Danny Glover and Nobu McCarthy as an estranged inter-racial couple. Gotanda is also putting the last touches on his first feature film, "Life Tastes Good," which premieres soon at Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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